Russia's Higher Police

Russia's Higher Police

Mini Teaser: Whether Czarist or Soviet, the Russian intelligence elite has always conceived on itself as the "most loyal" servant of "the Russian idea." Now one of their own is president.

by Author(s): Laurent MurawiecClifford G. Gaddy

SO MUCH HAS changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union that it is easy to overlook some things that have not changed. One of the most significant of these constants is the continued importance of an intelligence elite that has existed within the Russian state for nearly 200 years, both as a corporate body and, more importantly, as a current of thought endowed with a distinctive identity and self-assured sense of national mission. This elite calls itself "the Higher Police" and, as things have turned out, it is largely in charge in today's Russia.

As it happens, the historical continuity of this elite can be traced, its self-conception can be charted, and its impact on the actions of the Russian state, yesterday as well as today, can be assessed. Such tasks are critical to understanding contemporary Russia and Russian foreign policy. It is to such labors, at least in their preliminary stage, that this essay is directed.

Grafting the Roots

IN 1997, the FSB (Federal'naya Sluzbba Bezopasnosti, or Federal Security Service), the contemporary incarnation of the Russian intelligence service--most popularly known as the KGB1--convened the first in a series of annual seminars on the history of the intelligence craft and intelligence organizations in Russia. Dubbed the "Historical Lectures at the Lubyanka"-- since they were held at the old headquarters of the KGB--the seminars took place under the auspices of the Andropov Institute. In-house KGB historians and invited outside academics gave presentations on such subjects as "The Founding of the Cheka: A New View", "On the Intelligence Activity of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Beginning of the 20th Century", and "The Department of Police and Secret Agents (1902-1917)." Remarkably, KGB historians have been focusing on pre-1917 intelligence work and organizations. While they do not ignore entirely 80 years of Soviet intelligence history--that of the Cheka, the GPU, the NKVD, and the KGB2-their focus points to a continuous corporate identity harking back to pre-revolutionary predecessor organizations that defined themselves as a "Higher Police" transcending ideology itself.

The history of the Higher Police dates back to the early 19th century. After the Decembrist putsch of 1825 failed to overthrow the newly enthroned Nicholas I, the Czar established a new organization that soon "became the most powerful force in the country", the Third Section of His Majesty's Own Chancellery.3 Designed not merely as a command center for repression of subversive machinations, it was also tasked with "the study of Russia's condition." Gathering the best and the brightest of the nobility, its brief was virtually unlimited. It was subordinate to the monarch alone. Such was the vysshaya politsiya, or, in the French preferred by the aristocracy of the time, la haute police. Its chief was General Count Alexander Khristoforovich Benckendorff (1783-1844), a soldier who rose from the ranks of the Baltic-German nobility that had provided so many of the Czars' servants.

Under Benckendorff's stewardship, which stretched from 1825 through 1844, the Third Section devoted itself to social engineering on a grand scale. Far from being merely a political police, it conceived of its role as "eradicating abuse" wherever it might be found in Russian society. Its 1839 report to the Czar boldly stated: "All Russia impatiently awaits changes....The machine requires to be reworked afresh. The keys to this necessity are to be found injustice and Industry. ...[The Section is] convinced of the necessity, even of the inevitability, of the liberation of the serfs."4 One could barely cite so explosive and sensitive an issue in the Russia of the time. Had such words been published in a journal, uttered in public, or even whispered in private--by anyone other than a member of the Third Section--it would have been cause for instant imprisonment or exile. Yet the Third Section regularly issued such reformist policy recommendations without fear. The 1838 report advocated the development of railways in Russia; the 1841 report called for special attention to public health; the 1842 report advocated lowering tariffs to foster economic development. The Section's Annual Reports on the State of Public Opinion were the Czar's eyes and ears. (While these extraordinary reports have in general been available to historians, their import has not been properly understood; as "police" reports, they are only of passing interest, but as traces of the Higher Police's social engineering ambitions, they are of primordial importance.)

The Third Section represented the emergence of a technocratic elite that pursued its mission of serving the Russian state from within and with the use of "enlightened" methods of social control and engineering. They were not a gaggle of thugs, or the jackbooted shock troops of autocratic repression. They conceived of themselves as the best, purest and most loyal servants of "a certain idea of Russia", and it is a concept that set deep roots. Indeed, it recurred several decades later in the 1870s, when the reformist course followed by the "czar-liberator" Alexander II faltered and terrorists besieged the regime. In a desperate bid to regroup, reorganize and streamline the forces of counter-revolution to defend the tottering regime, the Czar chose General Prince Mikhail T. Loris-Melikov as head of the Third Section.

The prince, an Armenian warlord who had met signal success as commander of the Army of the Caucasus, applied liberal "techniques" to a difficult situation. He enlarged public liberties in the hope of rallying the enlightened segments of public opinion to the regime's side. The slogan that inspired and symbolized Loris-Melikov's policy was a call for a "dictatorship of the heart." (It seems that even in matters of the heart, Russians cannot do without dictatorship.) Loris-Melikov soon acquired and exercised sweeping powers, virtually controlling all aspects of government except foreign policy, to the point of being nicknamed the "vice-czar" by Russian society.5 But he still could not save the Czar's life: Alexander II was brutally assassinated on March 1, 1881 and the short-lived "liberal era" came to an end. The Third Section was soon replaced by the "security section", the okhrannoye otdeleniye, or Okhrana.

In sharp contradistinction to the "enlightened" rule of Loris-Melikov, a powerful group of aristocrats advocating instead a regime of brutal repression organized their own form of support for the threatened autocracy; now in the person of Czar Alexander III. Representing a temporary abandonment of the social engineering ethos, and organized as a secret society, these families formed a quasi-military "volunteer guard" of more than 10,000 in the name of and for the sake of protecting the Czar. They called themselves the "Sacred Brotherhood" (svyaschennaya druzhina), an allusion to the medieval Russian lords' and princes' elite guards, or bands of companions, the druzhina. The Sacred Brotherhood also operated an international intelligence apparatus that later became the seed-crystal for the Okhrana's own foreign department.

In a way, the Brotherhood was too successful for its own good. The ferocious policies it advocated were adopted in full by Czar Alexander III and his influential adviser, the Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who has been called, not without reason, the most influential reactionary in Russian history. But the Brotherhood's independent strength bothered Pobedonostsev as the ideologue of a supreme Czardom, and as a result, the Czar dissolved it. The Sacred Brotherhood's heritage nevertheless lived on in the later establishment of the violent, militantly anti-Semitic "Black Hundred" organization (the Chernaya Sotnya)--the forerunner of modern Russian fascism.

If the Sacred Brotherhood represents both the high nobility and the brutality of the Russian intelligence elite, the figure of Colonel Sergei Zubatov (1863-1917) stands for the return of social engineering of the highest sophistication. Himself originally a revolutionary student who was "turned", Zubatov rose meteorically to the head of the Moscow Okhrana where he applied refined methods comparable to "brainwashing" for turning younger revolutionists into Okhrana agents. In the end, his police apparatus controlled much of the Russian Left's political organizations, even up to the leadership level. Father Georgi Gapon, the priest and labor organizer who led the early phases of the 1905 Revolution, was originally Zubatov's agent.

Zubatov not only suborned the Left, he also strove to deflate its appeal. He single-handedly created Russia's trade-union movement. As his biographer put it, "The idea of a pure monarchy. . . [as] the sole force working for the common good" guided him, the aim being the "taming of the bourgeoisie. . . [and] gaining the favors of the workers and the peasants." What mattered was "not so much the statics of autocracy as its dynamics." Zubatov's inspiration in his effort to "reeducate Russian society"--re-engineer it, that is--was that "the free Russian people do not wish their country to become another France or United States." The innate desire of the Russians, he believed, was the fulfillment of "the Russian Idea." To that end, Zubatov advocated paternalistic governance over the working masses, to include better working conditions, healthcare, social security benefits, and so on--all to be gouged out of the industrialists. His doctrine, though not explicitly socialist, was strongly anti-capitalist.6 It was, in a way, a kind of coerced noblesse oblige.

Essay Types: Essay